Dojo on stress

This (thinking) dojo came about because someone described their biggest problem as stress, relating to recent job-change events.  I ran this dojo in Melbourne and Sydney to an audience of ~10 people each time. (45mins-1hr long)

As the facilitator:

  1. Say yes.  Accept what people bring.  There’s no wrong answer. Each person is bringing the most valuable thing for themselves to the discussion.  
  2. There is a need to balance the group time and let everyone talk if they want to, but generally people are aware of that.  If needed, thank someone and bring their awareness to the fact that this is a group event and everyone needs to participate to grow.  The exercise is not about being right but about sharing and discussing stress.
  3. Make empty space, (time when nothing is said) both for people to think, and for less talkative people to step up and share. Speak slowly, there is no rush.
  4. There is no need to force participation, feel free to mention that anyone can pass at any time.  It might be healthy to model “pass” behaviour at the start by getting everyone to say out loud “pass”.  “What do you say if you don’t want to contribute and you want to pass?” (“PASS” duh)

1. Share a stressful experience.

Each person should share a personal or significant experience of stress that they have encountered in their life.  It doesn’t have to still be “alive”, but it has to be personally relevant to them being engaged in the discussion and get an internal sense of what “stress” is and the sorts of things we are talking about.  (if doing this on your own, write down your experience, spend a few minutes waiting with the memories to get a sense of how it felt to be in the body during that experience, feel free to write more than one down)

(1-2mins per person)

Briefly check for a common theme.  I.e. stress caused by interpersonal relationships or work.  Be mindful of that when continuing the exercise.

2. Causes of stress

Stress usually has a cause in life.  Each person is different, each person will know their own common causes of stress.  Make a list of personal and common causes of stress.

(2 mins alone making a list, 5-10 mins to discuss the general possible causes of stress and build a group list)  (if alone, you can google it, but with emphasis that this exercise is not about getting the right answer, but more about being aware of the parts of the stress problem and playing around with them in mind in one session.)

2. What are the signs of stress.

How would you know someone else was stressed?  How would you know you were stressed? Make a list as a group discussion. There’s a short list at the bottom AFTER you have made your own list of the relevant signs.

(2 mins by timer by ourselves then 10mins for group discussion)  (if alone, spend more time making the list)

Get specific to name a few instances if it helps people participate.  “This one time I was stressed about X and I kept having nightmares”. etc.

3. what do you do about stress?  How do you relieve that stress?

get specific about how to wind down, how to rest, how to relax, feel safe, distract, and more. (list at the bottom AFTER the exercise to compare notes)

(2 mins by timer by ourselves then 10mins for group discussion)  (if alone, spend more time making the list)

Being Strategic

Once we know what causes stress, what stress looks like, and what to do about stress when it comes up, the last thing left to do is to be mindful.  Notice the causes, notice the signs that come up and act appropriately. As long as I am aware of my body, my behaviour and my actions, I can effectively manage my own stress and the stress of the people around me.

4. Anything else we want to share about stress?

How to tell someone else they are stressed without the words coming across like a slap in the face:

  • “I feel like you are stressed”
  • “I noticed you keep pacing, are you stressed?”  
  • (instead of, “you are stressed, stop that”)

Share any other personal stress stories or thoughts that come up from the exercise.  If we are done, go to the conclusion. (10 mins)


Reflect on if this is helpful personally.  How can I tie this into my life. How can I notice the stress?  How can I grow to use this information. Consider reminding myself in a month to check if I still do this.  Consider how I can plan a “stress check” into my weekly routine. Consider how I can make use of this information.  (3-5mins on our own doing what is needed to carry this out) (share any particularly good ones 5 mins)

The following lists are incomplete, they are here for clues, feel free to make your own or ignore these.

Causes of stress

  • Relationships
  • Work
  • Emotions
  • Food/diet
  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Mistakes, accidents
  • Emergencies
  • Surprises
  • Major events or life milestones
  • Big projects
  • Moving house/city
  • Family changes

Stress signs

  • Body based sensations (tightness, sweat, feeling heavy, doom, heart rate)
  • behaviour changes (posture changes, pacing, staying out late, sleep changes)
  • Expressions (face stuff, behaviour, I know I am confused from the confusion expression)
  • Emotions (aaaaah!, Sad, scared, flustered, etc)
  • Energy (lethargy, overactive)
  • Actions (eating more, injury)
  • dreams…  

What do you do about stress?

  • Take a bath
  • Distract myself
  • Leave the room
  • Meditate
  • Play video games
  • Sleep
  • Talk to someone about it
  • Pamper myself
  • Let go of trying to control everything and make sure it goes well
  • Stop doing the thing (sometimes an option)
  • Eat something
  • Concrete checks (have I eaten, drank, slept, got sunlight, spoken to friends) (you feel like shit guide)

Thanks for participating, feel free to get in touch with feedback.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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Is this how I choose to show up?

Is this how I choose to show up?  No.

I’m exhausted.  I’m just trying to survive here and today I did that.  Not every today. But I did this today. Yes.

Is this how I choose to show up?  No.

I’m doing better than surviving but am I a good person?  Did I do the right thing? Will I be going to heaven or hell for this.  Is this how I choose to show up? Yes. I did the right thing. If I survive or not, I know I did the right thing.

Is this how I choose to show up?  No.

I’ve aligned myself to the right people.  If I follow them, then I know I’m a good person.  They can help me survive. But are they the right people?  How would I know? Yes. This is right. The gods are with us.  And even if they aren’t, they can’t hate me for being on the side of the right people.  The gods might smite us for being wrong. The gods might be on our side. I might survive being on this side, I might not.  Yes. This is right.

Is this how I choose to show up?  No.

I’m working in a team.  We are building something for all of us.  We are ordered and structured, that’s part of why the world is safe, because of our order.  I don’t know if it’s the right people but at least we are working together. And hey – it’s a job, it’s worth it to do good work.  It’s pay. It’s enough to survive. But is it enough for me? Am I getting what I want? Maybe if I knew better. The science, the tests to run I could get this team working better.  How do I do that? Yes. It’s okay, I’ve got this how I am. I might not survive but at least I’m part of this big idea, and through this big idea I survive. It’s not that the gods might smite us, we are the gods now.  We make the ideas. We live or die by the ideas we make and if they survive the long haul. It’s us against the gods of time. And of course the other people’s big ideas. Maybe our idea beats their idea by sheer will of structure, and I have all the right people with me, and even if I didn’t, that’s okay too I guess.  Maybe we aren’t right, and I’m okay with that too, as long as we try. In the true arena of ideas, the best ideas win. Yes.

Is this how I choose to show up?  No.

I’m running the tests.  I’m getting that recognition for being right in the ways I’m right.  In all the ways I know, I know that I’m doing well. All that unknown, it’s not safe, but I’m coming to conquer it.  I have my team, but I don’t need them, they follow me because I’m right. I’m aligned with the right person, because the right person is me, and with god as my witness I will make it.  But am I doing enough for everyone else too? Yes. I am doing my best.

I’m here to survive.  Capitalism is key. It’s a system and I’m making my system to win.  The gods of old are no match for the gods of the seed of pure corporate power.  My corporate gods battling out in the free market against the other corporate gods for our survival.  It’s me against nature, but it’s not just mother nature any more, the forest lands are long gone. She was soft, but human nature.  That’s the battle. It needs shaping, it needs guiding, it needs advertising and convincing. That’s how we get them. One group at a time.  May the best human win. As long as they have those close to them. That’s the seat of my power. The people around me. And the people around them.  And the people who are here to build something, build something that matters to us. And make ourselves rich in the process. Yes. This is how I show up.

Is this how I choose to show up?  No.

I’m consulting, I’m connected, I’m empathic and understanding.  I’m listening like never before. I refuse to fall for the mistakes of the past.  It’s not just about knowing the truth, it’s about sharing the truth. When we share our truth, our ideas, our science, The things we build together.  That’s how we grow together. Ever upwards. As a community we can reach the top. The place of legends. We can get ourselves back there, to the place of legends.  We too can be in tune with our nature and find new wholeness of being.

We have to defend our truth against those who are greedy.  The world was not meant to be taken from the many by the few.  We need to purge the poison from our midst. We do that together.  Big structure is our enemy. We need the right amount of anarchy to fix this.  It takes a bit of terror to break a broken system. Working together as small collective, we can rise up against the gods of oppression, Moloch and the tragedy of the commons.  Together we make the world a better place. For not just me and you, but everyone who ever is or was oppressed. We can make the world they died for. Yes. This is how I choose to show up.

Is this how I choose to show up?  No.

It’s not enough.  I look at myself and everywhere I’ve passed through and it’s not enough.  I can’t just survive, I need more than that to make purpose. I can’t just worship a benevolent god.  If the gods are benevolent they are irrelevant, and in that irrelevance, they made their own noose. The gods have to be here with me or they don’t deserve to be here.  I can’t just follow the people who I think are right. I’ve followed enough wrong people to know. People aren’t just right on their own, people are right by having the right ideas.  And the right ideas only come from collaboration. From working together. But that’s not enough either. Working together breeds corruption, broken systems. I have to worship science, rationalism, the free market.  Doing my own experiments. Leading my own path. But that’s not enough. The free market sold out the environment. My science deluded me, replication crisis and terrible statistics. What if I delude everyone? I can run more tests but no matter how many tests I run, I can never eliminate the human factor.  The human factor seems to be the cause and solution to all our problems. If only there were a way to fully embody all that it is to be the human factor and know what it is to be human and still grow. No. It’s hideous. The nature of humans is all this. At all levels. And so I ask myself, today. Is this how I choose to show up?  Yes.

I survive.  Not by worshipping the gods, but by becoming them.  I lead the people. Not on my own, but with my ideas, by fully embodying my ideas, I become my ideas, my gods.  By collaborating with my collective. And it’s not just my ideas, it’s the scientific and rational truth. We stand on the shoulders of giants to look forward.  And it’s not just the truth, it’s the truth for everyone. And by living and breathing the truth for everyone, comfortable, uncomfortable truth.

I can step out of my human nature and see, for the first time, clearly, where I came from.  And where I am going. I can see how all the parts of me, engage with all the parts of you, and we, and us.  

I live and embody the question, “is this how I choose to show up?”.  This is how I choose to show up. In the question, the paragraph, in the page, in the wonder, in the being ever forward facing.  Yes. THIS IS where I am. Yes THIS IS where I came from. And yes. I’m not done. Yes. This is how I choose to show up.

Is this how I choose to show up?  Yes. No. Not in the answer, but in the question, “is this how I choose to show up?”

Picture from the new Spiral Dynamics In action book.

Thanks for reading.

If this post is cryptic, its because I’ve picked up the developmental psychology model of spiral dynamics and it’s still growing on me.

“Is this how I choose to show up?”, falls into the category of something of a mantra. Also the phrase falls into the category of strange esoteric knowledge that came to me while meditating.

For those interested in chakras, the phrase has an alignment to the chakra system that just so happens to be beautiful. It also has an alignment to [Past|Present|Future], so it becomes a particularly orienting phrase. (“is this” – past, “How I choose” – present, “To show up?” – future)

I’m asking myself this question, and when I find the answer, I ask myself again.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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(meetup question) How to be happy?

I attended a philosophy meetup and needed a topic on the fly. I asked the question “how to be happy?”. The best part was how the first person tore the question open and answered a better question because happy doesn’t make sense. It’s got more to do with contentment or well being or meaning than caring about a subjective happy mood state that we can get into based on some criteria. Some moments are Sad and should be sad. That’s a good thing, I don’t want to make myself happy in situations where sadness is appropriate.

After that line of thinking died down, we went on to find more pieces of the puzzle. As we can expect, each person had different parts of the puzzle that were more and less important. I struggle to find any of these answers wrong, and it’s remarkable how much each person can know and bring to a discussion. 

Here’s the list of suggestions on, “how to be happy?”:

  • deal with trauma in a healthy way
  • be content, don’t aim for happy
  • be aware and stay inside my comfort zone
  • do plenty of learning
  • avoid being focused on pleasing others
  • find a balance
  • sleep
  • be productive
  • understand emotions and how to work with them
  • self understanding
  • watch out for alcohol
  • seek things you know will make you happy
  • crying as a release
  • be aware of what doesn’t make you happy
  • reduce the gap between expectation and reality
  • gratitude/appreciation practices
  • remove negative thoughts
  • ignore other people’s opinions of you
  • being proved wrong about bad things
  • wallowing in sadness (is sometimes good)
  • interpersonal connections
  • threshold around being content
  • introspective awareness of contentment
  • let go of negative things

I didn’t get to stay for too long pestering them all to generate answers but I appreciate all the contributions I did get. For me I rest in the question. I feel like there isn’t one answer, there is only good questions.

What more is possible?

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This is an experimental investigation of map and territory.

Map and territory is a relationship where the map represents the territory.. The map is not the territory, that we know.

Scribbling on the map does not change the territory

I am in my house, sitting at a table with a picture of planet earth. There’s a relationship between the picture and myself because technically I am in that picture map. But also I am looking at that picture and I recognise it as a map of the territory that I live in. There’s a boundary between me and the map.

Now I have a map of the land mass of Australia. I am both in a territory represented by the map, and this map describes me (weakly).

Now I have a map of my city. There’s again the same relationship. Two ways. I am in my city, but also my city map is separate from me because it sits on my table in front of me.

now I have a map (floorplan) of my house.

I am looking at a piece of paper, the map is external to the territory of me walking around my house.

Now I have a 3d model of my house. It includes the table I’m standing in front of, and a mini version of all my maps on the table, and a 3d house model.

there’s a boundary where I am looking at the map and not in the map.

but I’ve also got a little figurine of myself in my 3d model. My figurine appears to be looking at the mini 3d model of the house that’s resting on his table. There’s a boundary here. A relationship between me and the model.

where I am looking at an external model of myself looking at an external model of myself.

But now I am here. In my head. With an internal map of myself, standing here, looking at myself in the wholeness of my being, and I ask,

“where is the boundary between myself and the map?”

Now might be a good time to pause or reflect on the exercise before reading on.  Obviously I can’t make you do that but I considered ending the whole article here for that effect.

Some Discussion

Friend: would it be that you is what remains when you turn away from the map. If it’s in your mind, then you remain when you stop thinking of the map?

Me: “what is the “you” that remains when “you” stop thinking of the map?

Friend: If we define identity the way I think you’re pointing at, then the you constantly changes. So, sure, that “you” is no longer there when you turn away from the map.

Me: Yes. From that place, repeating the exercise, the new map now includes that information “the ‘you’ always changes“. And I can ask the same question. “what is the you that remains separate from the map?”

Existing map-less is very hard. The human brain really likes to put maps around things. I will be thinking, “I am map-less” and then realise that “thinking, ‘I am map-less'” is a map too. There is a realisation that there is only one real territory (that we live in), and it’s very hard to exist in the territory and not the map. And a further realisation that, for everyone else who exists in their maps and not “in the territory” they are also just genuinely existing in the territory too because maps are in the territory too.

From that place can come an acceptance of anyone and anything as they are. Being as their being is, bringing what they bring. Because that’s (from my perspective, from the outside that person) the territory.

I feel like this exercise has the opportunity to generate weird feelings. Sometimes confusion, sometimes fear or dizzy or any number of other experiences. That’s the point. The purpose is to then enable the experimenter to explore the feelings that have come up. What does that mean for the nature of reality that I live in. What’s the dizzy trying to help explain to me? I wonder what is going on.

Special mention of the book No Boundary by Ken Wilbur of Integral Theory

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Container and contained theory by Wilfred Bion

Epistemic status: notes about a specific scientific theory.  relevant to therapy, interpersonal relationships and healthy development.  Also includes some personal ideas around the theory.

Container and contained is a psychological theory by Wilfred Bion building on the work by Jung. It’s my current reading project.

The Theory

In the mother/child relationship the mother is the container and the child is the contained. A baby is not good at emotions.  It’s also not good at “strange and new” unfortunately for a developing mind, there’s a lot of strange. And without having any foundation “new” pattern matches to “unknown” and therefore according to the theory “death” or “bad”. The mother has two types of container actions.

The first is to see the pain of the child and present their own emotional strength in the face of it. “no now is a time to be happy” and therefore model the healthy ways to form emotional attachment to experience.  Food is good, hungry is bad. Injury is bad, laughter is good. The second container is more like, “I see your pain and I am able to hold your emotions and be okay. I can be sad too, and not die”.

The two containers are also relevant to therapy.  That’s:

  1. I see your pain and I am okay. And
  2. I can copy your pain, demonstrate having it, and then effectively model self soothing. (as a mature adult container).

The theory also discusses sensory experiences prior to conceptualisation as beta states and interpersonal cognition as alpha function. β: “I see the object”, 𝜶: “object reminds me of my mean friend and therefore (as a 2 year old) the object makes the world upset”. Early childhood is a process of calibrating these states and testing experiences.

Ultimately the healthy adult is their own self sufficient container and knows how to do both containers to their own emotions when they are needed.

A lot of social/friending seems like pairwise containerising.

A friend saying “you are right, I am scared too”, creates the emotional mirroring validation of a container. Or a friend (coach? Archetype) “bravely” saying, “it’s okay to be afraid”.

It seems unclear how to know which container is right, other than “to know already”. It seems like there is no research on this. There is little information on the container theory as it is because it’s still developing.

I have been experimenting with noticing container styles and watching it happen. Today I noticed someone do the wrong one for a particular moment for me. Minutes later they did the other container which was wrong in that situation too.  Internally it was funny. The poor friend probably just felt unhelpful for that moment. Planning to watch myself and which container I tend to give. See how I go and if I can sense into the other one and check to see if it’s more useful.

I suspect that I want lots of “being and being strong” container and I give that off a lot too. Even if it’s sometimes the wrong one.  I don’t want people to take my emotions and be moved by them or to model their management of the emotions. I want them to see me as I am and just be. Suspect that this comes from a particular failing of my upbringing and other people will be different.

I suspect there’s more here in terms of what beliefs and structures are implicitly created by the two types of container. Where the “taking emotions” does more of a, “let me model that for you” and the “just watching and being strong” does more of the, “you are showing me how much of a strong and independent agent you are”.

By different underlying needs, we uncover different underlying desire for validation experiences. There is also probably insight here about BPD and a constantly shifting goalpost where maybe someone can be in a state where “I can’t model my own emotions healthily so don’t watch me”, at the same time as “don’t tell me what to do”. With basically the worst of both worlds of lack/need.

Maybe there’s an internalisation of safe/secure existence?

Where it’s first parentally modelled and later it’s owned by the child.  in theory, a trained alpha function brain knows how to conceptualise keeping itself safe. And carries that information everywhere.   “safe” being a proxy word for all things relevant to keeping an agent alive and evolutionarily relevant.

All I can suggest is to watch the two types of containers and see if this is relevant to your life.

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The Tether Theory and the Concrete, Subtle and Causal tiers

Epistemic status:  A bunch of meditation and meditation theory.  A previously undocumented theory of this corner of consciousness.

The book The Science of Pranayama offers that the thought stream is tethered to the breath via the prana, “Just as the bird that is tied to a post by a string”.  Meditation theory often uses animal analogies like the Ox Herder pictures.  Pointing out the great way describes, “It requires some effort to tie up a wild camel, and it takes some skill to untie the camel and have it stay”.  Other wild animals are also common to describe the untamed mind.

I put a lot of thought into this concept and applying it further than it was originally suggested.  I meditated while trying to observe for myself what was going on and why. There’s something subtle about the way a deep breath out will interact with the thought stream.  Feels like a sigh of letting go. I watch “emotional content” conversations and when I feel the need to take a deep breath, I notice when I don’t and when I should.

The Tiers of subjective experience

(Side note: Concrete is sometimes called “gross” and causal is sometimes called “very subtle” in different maps)

Concrete: This is the physical, physiological.  The beating heart, the breath.

A concrete tier injury looks like a broken leg.  Or a scratch wound. It takes time to heal.  Feeling hungry is not on the concrete level, we don’t die from feeling hungry (we die from starvation).  Feeling cold usually starts on the subtle level but there is a life threatening feeling of cold.

There is a bridge between Concrete and subtle tiers through experiences like “goosebumps” where they register as a physical state and as a subtle feeling, or some mix of the two.

Subtle: This is an aptly named tier because – it’s subtle.  An experience of the emotional subjective happens here.  I feel happy, I feel guilty. A few “weird” feelings and hunches like “gut instinct” that seem guiding but without being as easy to describe as the concrete tier.

A subtle injury is a panic attack or being distraught.  It is possible to be in an extended state of injury to this level but it’s not possible to “break a happy” or break a miserable in a way that it becomes permanently injured and requires time to heal like a broken bone or a scratch.  It is possible to set up a happy so that it leads straight to fear, i.e. “I’m not allowed to be happy because that’s when bad things happen”. In this sense, “Happy” and “Fear” are not broken themselves but they are routed through each other.

Causal: On this level are impersonal ideological drives.  This level is where meaning and purpose registers. When someone feels like “making a difference in the world” or “being part of something greater”, these register on the causal level, not quite a feeling but sometimes a drive.  The causal level is occasionally described as a void or various spirit-y phenomena.

A Causal injury might take days, months to become clear, it might take days, months or years to heal.  An example here is tricky to pinpoint but a loss of purpose or a disconnection from meaning might land here.  As a teenager, going through a break up hits the causal tier particularly strongly. As an adult (a divorce or) a break up does the same.  Relationships often register on the meaning level (for the kegan stage 3 particularly). Where it doesn’t just feel bad, it feels “dooming”.

About break ups – the interesting thing to note is that I could “break up” every day. It would be emotionally hard, but it would not cause death to me, there’s no “physical injury” to a “break up” despite it probably feeling worse than a broken bone.  For something with “break” in the name, something physical did not break.  With the open question of, “what took injury in a break up?” (some clues: expectations, intentions, plans, hope).  Note: a break up every day would probably start feeling like a heart attack, or conversely – complete numbness.

Not wanting to downplay the significance of the causal tier with a soft example like a break up, there are more ideological concepts than break ups on causal tier.  Imagine being subscribed to communism and the realisation that a lifetime of effort in that movement was ineffective towards it’s goals. Not a physical injury, likely some aspect of “feels bad” but there’s also a “aaaah noooo” experience that goes with this shift of understanding.

Where does mental illness fit?

The whole model relies on a re-conceptualisation of mental health as being a different kind of information.

My brief answer is, “Not as it seems”. Most mental health problems are not states of constant emotional pain, i.e. depression is not an equivalent “constantly broken” experience like a bone or scratch. It’s a mostly calm mind with small nudges towards less than amazing decisions for a very long time. (I can’t say too much in this spot around that – other than, “huh that’s weird, watch this space”).  Psychosis and mania seems like extended subtle tier experiences and I’m still trying to understand that.


The levels are connected with a tether (metaphorically a string that tugs on them to line up).  In various circumstances or people, the tether changes length or has freedom depending on all kinds of factors.  For example in summer I have more energy. I can take on more social adventures and play around more without feeling bad.  (Linking concept SAD)  

When I visit a foreign culture, my tether for “getting offended” (Feeling offended) is longer because on a causal level I recognise there is going to be parts of this culture where I don’t understand how it works.  

It may help to think of boats floating on a river, tied to each other.  Wherever any boat floats, the other boats will begin to follow. The river is the subjective experience of the external world, like summer, living in a warzone, being stressed at work, getting lots of sleep, etc.  There are plenty of examples of different river events that can direct the boats to travel around.

Example: Concrete to Subtle Tether

I exercise.  and I exercise routinely for a month.  At some point along the way, my depression lifts and my quality of life increases.  Further exercise will help to maintain my quality of life but it’s not a guarantee.

I stop exercising.  I spend a lot of time on the couch and TV-watching.  I do this for a few weeks and my desire to go out and do interesting activities diminishes.  I feel lethargic. I lose motivation and I wonder why. I feel like, “I should really exercise” but I don’t necessarily act.

In summer, my physical body is warmer.  I don’t feel hungry as often, and I stay awake longer without feeling tired.  I can exercise so hard that I injure myself and it can take days of pretending I am okay in order to seek help.  My subtle is strongly anchored in the present state of the concrete tier (I still move around fine despite injury) and my subtle takes time to catch up to the reality of physical injury.  Eventually I wake up with difficulty moving and my subtle tier catches up to feeling bad about this.

These tiers are tethered.

Example: Subtle to causal tier

I’m happy, curious and excited.  It doesn’t matter what I put my time towards, I enjoy the activity that I am doing.  Wherever I choose to engage my energy, feels like the thing that I most enjoy. I start new projects with this energy.  Explore fun ideas, and seem to have enough spare time to do anything I like.

I meet someone who is kind and generous.  They are involved in a church group. I feel good around them because I recognise them as being a great person despite having different beliefs about which groups to be invested in.  Eventually I follow them to church because it seems to have been good for them.

These tiers are tethered.

Example: Causal to subtle tier

I am working on my favourite hobby.  Someone whose opinion I care about makes a sly comment to invalidate my interest.  I laugh a little. Days later I am frustrated and annoyed at reality. With good meditation practices I could trace the problem back to the comment.  Without it I would just feel uncomfortable and confused as to why. I spend several days wondering why everything is shit. Sitting on the couch maybe, trying desperately to distract myself.  With more ADHD I forget and am doing 101 other projects. With less ADHD I have listless misery.

Without meditation – eventually I take a shower and have shower-thoughts time to make a little progress on the problem.  It either stays forever, or goes away by me working it out. Or I quit the project.

Example: Subtle to concrete tier.

I’m miserable.  I just went through a break up.  I don’t want to move my body. I want to stay in bed.  I haven’t showered in a few days. I’m eating ice-cream and chocolate but it’s really not helping.  Somehow this feels like I am honouring my emotional pain, in another way it feels pointless, but everything feels pointless right now.

When I get stressed at work, I eat more.  I get home after work and I am starving. I eat chocolate and snacks and I can’t seem to diet.  My friends encourage me to switch to fruit and I do that, I eat the fruit as well. Life is just too hard right now.

Example: Subtle to other tiers

I experienced the death of my grandfather.  I have an image in my mind of the temporary nature of life.  It’s left me a little shaken for days. I look at all the things he cared about and how some of them never got completed.  I wonder about what I’m working towards. I don’t rush to work today. I’m delicate to myself for a week or two and I find myself gradually floating back to where I was in life.

Example: Concrete to causal

I make friends with a dodgy crowd.  They drink heavily and they eat unhealthy foods.  This is great because drinking heavily helps me avoid the problems caused by heavy drinking.  I make this my lifestyle and I regularly drink to avoid connecting with my problems around avoiding purpose in life.  Social life is fun and I always laugh with my mates. Maybe that’s all there is to life?

Example: Causal to concrete

I believe in being part of something greater.  I give coins to homeless people and I always smile at strangers.  I want to make the world a better place and in these small ways I am connecting with a higher purpose.  I know it’s important because I regularly get comments about it and encouragement. I start to see people copying me and I watch a smile spread through a crowd as I pass.  I post happy things on social media and I watch as I brighten up people’s days. I live in a world which I choose to see as happy.

Working with the tiers

The, So you feel like shit guide starts with the concrete tier.  Have I had a glass of water today? Have I eaten recently?  Taken medication? Have I exercised today?

This is an excellent strategy.  The benefit of starting with the ground is that it’s easy to fix being uncomfortable and needing a toilet.  Many practices describe themselves as “grounding”. For me, I can check in with my body with a handful of probing questions that I make up myself.

  • Am I breathing? (duh!)  Take a deep breath.
  • Am I injured?
  • Am I sore?  Where?
  • How is my posture?  
  • Am I sweating or thirsty?
  • Am I hungry?  Do I need food?
  • Have I exercised?  Can I go for a walk?
  • Am I currently in physical danger?

There is a benefit to grounding checks for taking the mind out of past/present rumination and into the present moment, as well as the opportunity to solve these problems if relevant.

Following concrete checks, move on to subtle checks.

  • Am I currently distraught?  
  • Is there something that happened that keeps making me feel bad?
  • Do I need to complete the thoughts about that?
  • What’s the overall feeling quality of the whole saga?
  • Is there some trigger that keeps dragging me back to emotional pain?
  • Can I bring myself to a calm/neutral space emotionally?

Once I’m in a calm place on my concrete and my subtle, I can watch to see what’s happening.  This will usually mean physically being still (sitting), emptying out the current thought stream, and watching what happens next.  The next place my attention goes towards is likely to be a causal event.

For example:  If I am looking at some birds while I wait (a stimuli).  My mind sees one bird go to bite another bird. I kinda smile and think about how they remind me of little kids bickering.  Suddenly I recall a fight I had with a childhood friend and how upset I was. And how people seem to misunderstand me. And PAUSE.  Wow. That’s what’s bothering me on the causal level. The other day I tried to help someone and they got offended. For all my efforts to help and all my intentions, I am mad at myself for failing.

“Mad at myself for failing”.  Clarity around what I’m upset about can allow me to be compassionate to the part of myself that wants to do better.  I’m only mad because I want the world to be a better place, and yeah, I see that. Realising my drive on a causal level to make the world a better place helps me see how that tether is linked to my subtle emotions and how that’s linked to my procrastination on the physical level.

I think of my “realising” in the paragraph above as a movement on the causal level to loosen the tether between my other causal drive and my subtle emotional states.

No post of mine is ever complete without at least one picture, so here it is.  An idea (causal level entity) that can change the nature of tethers between the concrete (social situation) and the subtle (emotion – excitement/anxious) tiers.

Tiers are from integral theory, StAGES model, Buddhism several other theories that try to amalgamate the different subjective experiences of consciousness.  Mine are not full definitions of the tiers, especially causal (or “very subtle”) tier, which I find hard to describe.  For the purpose of further discussion it may be helpful to treat this as a rough map to someone else’s concept.

Thanks to my draft readers.  

Meta: I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months. Not sure how long it took to write.

word count: 2488

cross posted to lesswrong:

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Feedback from emotions


Mental health can often feel like the inability to get clarity around if it’s, “just me” or if it’s “the world” that’s crazy.  There’s an open question in any interpersonal problem “is it me or is it them”. Basic game theory might have you look at the general strategies and take a precommitment, like Tit for tat, with forgiveness.  Something like, “It’s always me” or “it’s always them” – as the opinion that is formed in response to the stimuli being presented.  These strategies tend to look like mental health problems when applied far too liberally. Some examples of these are in the List of Maladaptive Schemas.

If you play fixed mindset belief games, you will be bested by people who can see your fixed mindset and predict it.  And beat it.

Unfortunately for basic game theory, advanced game theory comes along and sees all the other people playing with Tit-for-tat, with forgiveness strategies and generates a one-up strategy whereby advanced game theoretic players can beat basic game theoretic players, Just by playing one move ahead of the basic players.

(movie: The Princess Bride)

Unfortunately for advanced game theory, there exists expert game theory players who have seen that strategy and devised advanced strategies for solving the “how do I beat basic, and advanced game players”.

And unfortunately for expert game theory players there exists the halting problem.  Where there will always be another level of play strategy.  And there will always be another strategy taking into account all previous strategies.  And this is an infinite loop.

how do I get feedback on an infinitely recursive system with the halting problem?

This question strikes at the core of the interface between self and the external world.  We are each a chinese room brain.  This is the problem of other minds.  When we design an experimental apparatus and attempt to glean feedback information from reality as if we are not in it, we don’t really answer the question here.

I only have one answer.  And it’s an unfortunately frustrating one.  I hint at the answer in the emotional training model but that’s not ultimately obvious enough.

Feedback has to come from within.  

How do I know what to do?  How do I gauge what is right and wrong where all I have to go on is the intention to gage right and wrong, and a collection of informational experiences that form my sensate reality including knowledge I have gathered by reading books, talking to people and experiencing life myself?

There is no “truth grain” external to the self; where, having found the truth grain, there is no need to be wrong ever again.  There is no fundamental reason why we can believe and trust external information more than internal information. (external information is only internally represented after all – with an assumption that we can comparably across brains; form equivalent internal representations of external information.)

I am ae enclosed brain.  Feedback has to come from within the system.  When I look in a mirror, I see a reflection of myself, but the reflection registers in the system.  The results of the reflection “wow I like the way I look” is a judgement call that happens from within the system.  When I ask my friend how I look and I receive the information that “I look as ugly as a bat out of hell”, that information registers inside the system.  Inside the brain. External validation is an illusion.

In that sense, if I didn’t already, now would be a good time to start liking myself.


Next: The third system

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Code switching

Related to: Hedging

Code switching is this useful linguistics concept that is not overtly known enough.

The type that I care about is a cross between “group identity” and “lexical need“:

Group identity: People may alter their language to express group identification. This can happen, for example, when introducing members of a particular group to others.[33]

Lexical need: People often use some technical terms or words written in another language. In that case, if people try to translate those words, that might distort the exact meaning and value of the word or term. In this case, code switching occurs to maintain the exact meaning of the word.

I care about cultural code switching.  But also a very particular problem where words in one “code” start to not be capable of describing the nature of the informational transfer.  Where words start to break down.

“have you tried turning up the volume on your attention?”

My recent investigations have shifted from the scientific structural rational playing field to the spiritual mystical enlightenment playing field.  If I had lexical problems before, they hit an all new level where each person’s lexical map is just comfortable being independent to each other person’s map.

How do I describe a wordless experience?  How do I transmit, record, encode or remind myself – what is the difference between “attention”, “awareness” and “focus”?

Awareness is broad and soft.  Attention is sharp, focus is the pointy part of attention.  If I think of focus as a lens pointing light to a single dot, that’s focus.  Awareness is a broad focus, but objects are not blurry per se, just taken to be as a holon, not as an individual.

And on it goes, with energy, awareness, emotions, colours, spirits, powers, understanding, confusion and so many many more codes.

The benefit of code switching, over say – rejecting someone for using certain words, is that it’s way more inclusive.  If I reflect internally that maybe I have misunderstood their code, then ask for clarification – I’m much more likely to treat them as a steelman than a strawman.  Take charitably what is said and from there…  grow.

Cross posted to:

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What is your relationship with your self?

I had a very deep and intense conversation with a friend.  We talked about “that feeling of being alone” and that relationships will come and go and really, “I am all that I can guarantee that I have” at the end of the day. My conversation partner asked me, “How do I be a friend to myself?”

And I clicked into a realisation.

Tighten your seat-belt and settle down for an epic dojo exercises that you weren’t expecting

Non-duality. Differentiation and integration.

One concept that meditation books (like: Pointing Out The Great Way, The Attention Revolution, The Mind Illuminated, Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha (FREE); ) talk about is the concept of non-duality (between many things, but this time specifically) between the observer of the thoughts and the one having thoughts. There’s a meditation path where the instructions are to point attention on attention itself. When I try to watch myself putting attention on somewhere else I can, but I lose a bit of attention when I “watch” myself. So I can watch myself having a thought, and feel the confusing feeling where I try to find who is having the thought, especially if I am busy watching then *oh wait now I’m watching not thought-ing*. The instructions are to repeat until [spoiler alert] you burn a hole through the idea of duality and you conclude on a sensation level of realisation there is a non-duality of self here.

(Strange and weird so far, that’s fine)

Story Time

I am my own guide.
(this story is hard to transmit and I’m scared to share it here so I’m leaving it out but it’s significant and one day I might write it up)

I have always had my own back.

I participated in a holotropic breathwork workshop. In short, the instructions are to breathe fast, deep and without breaks until you start seeing things. Then breathe into the experience. Without getting technical, there’s something about oxygenation, lack of carbon dioxide, heart rate, and lower brain access that causes interesting experiences, something about oxygenation that feels healing and something about extended duration and the right thematic music to give exciting realisations.

I followed the instructions and I found myself a little too good at breathing. I breathed so fast that I missed it. Then I worked out what had happened and decided to slow down, breathe lightly and see if I could find the right balance of where experiences happened. As I floated down from “too far” searching for my own trippy visualisation “spirit journey”. My awareness was on what was happening, the floating down experience.  Suddenly I got an image of myself, not lying on a bed, but on a leaf. Floating down in gentle wind, but also a viscerally strong sensation, feeling that I am holding myself. I am protecting myself, “I have always had my own back”.

This casually profound feeling is not one that transmits via words. It’s a powerful and wonderful experience to have and any doubt of myself was washed away by the feeling that I now can return back to any time to the feeling that I protect myself.  I have my own back.

There are a few classic precepts that might ring true and common:

  • I am my own hero
  • I put pressure on myself
  • I crack the whip
  • I take care of myself.
  • I am my own god. I am one with the universe. I worship myself. I am in connection to god (people sometimes say these)
  • younger levels: I like myself, I am confident.
  • Very young: I want ice-cream for myself.
  • (monkey in a cage) (rat on a wheel)

Each of these has a non-duality of self in it:

  1. I am the self that does the liking; and
  2. I am the self that is being liked.

But when I say that I like myself I usually imagine I am the one doing the liking, not the one being liked. To think I am the other one, and to occupy that experience for a moment is a little jarring, a little dissociating and a little uncomfortable.

Exercise – Dojo.

Our dojos are run as a group with ~10 people in the room, once a month.

  1. blank paper, pen.
  2. Set a 4 minute timer.
  3. Generate a list of answers to the question “What is my relationship to myself?” Look into various facets of my life, what is the relationship I have to myself?

For example: I am the one who earns the pay-cheque for myself.

Have a brief discussion of what we found.  This is an opportunity to learn from one another and steal each other’s ideas for ourselves if they are relevant.  People don’t have to share, people don’t have to participate.

Now take those statements and for each of them divide them into the two sides. (2mins)

Ex: I am the one earning the paycheque. I am the one being earnt for.

As you do that, ask yourself which one you are, mark them off.

Have a brief discussion about what we found, was anyone surprised?

Note: some statements break into more than two.  Example:

  1. I am the one pushing myself to go to work, to earn the paycheque
  2. I am the one being pushed to go to work, to earn the paycheque
  3. I am the one doing the earning
  4. I am the one being earnt for.

Discussion:  Anyone having trouble dividing the statements?  How does it feel to you?  If you don’t divide, that’s fine too.  And a learning point.

How does it feel to be the other one?

4 mins.  For each of the relationships, imagine you are the other half of the duality. How does it feel to be the other half?

What are the rights of the other half? What were the rights of the first half? Are you treating yourself fairly? Can you strike a new bargain?

Is this a balanced relationship? Do you want to change the relationship to be more balanced?

WaitButWhy described his relationship with his procrastinator monkey.  A friend of mine once drew up a contract between the parts. The rights and responsibilities of the two (or more) Internal Family actors in their internal world.

Discussion here about what we found.

How does it feel to be the other one?

Imagine there are two of you walking down a path. An older you and a younger you. Which one do you associate with?

What is each one doing?

(most people pick one over the other)

Now imagine there is a third one of you so that you are the middle one.

Now take away the first of the pair that you started with that you weren’t. (for instance if you were the older one, you are now the younger of the two on the path)

How does it feel to be the other one?

What are the two doing now?

Discussion.  How did it feel, what did we find?

2 mins – try to be kind to the other you. Or try to be harsher. What do you want?

This applies to the relationship to exterior world too. Are you the one putting the pressure on or the one being pressured? Are you the one giving or the one receiving?

Stand one foot on the other foot.

How does it feel to be the foot being stood on?
How does it feel to be the foot doing the standing on?
How do you feel about your ability to balance while standing on yourself in this position.

Vary the pressure between how much you are leaning on yourself, ask the above questions again.

This is an exploration of your interactions with the rest of the world.

Feel around for the happy medium where both feet are happy with this relationship.  How does this describe your desire to support others and be supported by others.

(This exercise has an anonymous feedback form where you can see other people describe their experiences)

Balance on one foot.  Kick the other food wildly to throw yourself off balance.

How does it feel to balance while being attached to something chaotic?

How does it feel to be a chaotic force attached to something stable and balanced?

How does this relate to the way you interact with chaotic forces in the rest of your life?  How does this relate to the way that you carry out the unknown or chaotic in your own actions?

Does this suggest that you might want more chaos in your life, or less chaos.

Note: These exercises can seems hard and might not work for everyone.  As a general prerequisite, if you intend to find something here, you will need 3 elements:

  1. Willingness to try
  2. The feeling of being in your body and connection to the body, breath or other strong awareness of present momentary experience.
  3. some sort of instruction which give you the method to follow.  (kindly written down above)

Once you find something, it’s going to be up to you to work out what to do next, and decide how/if you let it shape your world and the way that you work.

Cross posted to: Lesswrong, Greaterwrong

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Emotional Training Model


Life is propagated by two main clusters of emotions. (*Yes I know it’s more like a spectrum but this is the poor simplification I am using for now)

The “good” feelings that we move towards, and the “bad” feelings that we move away from.  (then there’s the neutral ones we hang around in sometimes but that’s for another time).

If you spend your life always running from the bad ones and always running towards the good ones, you may have a good life.  You may have a life that just gets lucky and has more good than bad.  Alternatively you may have hard things to do that involve feeling uncomfortable for short or long periods of time.  If you are forever running away from the bad emotions, and forever addicted to running towards the good emotions, you are severely limited in your agency compared to if you have even a little bit of freedom to do something like, “avoid short term rewards”, or “put up with scary moments” on the way to other experiences. (see also The Trauma model of mental health)

The carnival ride example

Charlie the five year old goes on a carnival ride.  Charlie the five year old throws up. Charlie the five year old learns that carnival rides make you feel terrible.

In (one of many) healthy worlds: When charlie turns ten, his friends ask him to go to the carnival again.  Charlie realises that the carnival ride might be different now, he fuels himself with a bit of peer pressure and he runs a new experiment, pushing back on the terrible feeling that he would usually avoid and rewrites his inclination to avoid terrible things.  Consequently charlie relearns that a carnival ride is only sometimes terrible and with the support of friends it can be good.

In (one of many) unhealthy worlds: When charlie turns ten, his friends ask him to go to the carnival again.  Charlie remembers that the carnival rides feel terrible and decides not to go to the carnival. This reinforces the terrible feeling.  Charlie feels entirely justified in avoiding a terrible thing, his friends don’t really care either way and life goes on. Charlie keeping a tiny reinforced experience that he should avoid terrible things.

Objectively speaking, a carnival ride is not terrible or good.  Subjectively, the feelings we attach to such experiences are what guides us in future experiences.  Rightly or wrongly, all possible futures for charlie are going to be guided by the possibility that those emotions will come up.

In an ideal world, our emotions, our s1 will be trained accurately from our surroundings.

In prehistoric times, we avoid the crocodile lake because we feel scared of the danger there.  The humans who didn’t feel scared of the danger, didn’t avoid the lake, didn’t live, and didn’t pass on their genes.

Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world for emotional training, and despite the best of intentions we can still wind up with emotional maps that don’t help us to win at life.

The good news is that we can re-train our early emotional models of the world.  The bad news is that it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and people spend years meditating on mountain tops for equanimity towards all experiences.

With that in mind – let’s begin.


The destination is the ability to feel uncomfortable feelings.  The result is to get to the other side. Unfortunately like all cryptic journeys, you can’t be too focused on the result or you will miss the whole “value in the journey” thing that all those wise people talk about.  You can think of this practice as a meditation on feelings

(This looks similar to ACT, that’s because it is.)

To start – ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”. That will give you an entry point. There’s always an entry point.  Even if it’s confused, or I feel like not doing this exercise right now, or I feel like being distracted by that other tab.

Then ask, “What is it like being me right now feeling X?”.  This question develops a relationship to the thoughtstream.

For our 3 examples above:

  1. Confused feels like Silly
  2. Not doing the exercise feels rebellious
  3. Distraction Feels exciting or Guitly

Repeat the question with the new find, “What does it feel like being me right now feeling X?”.  Building the ongoing relationship with the thoughtstream.

  1. Silly feels like A clown that people would poke fun at (this is an example of a metaphorical pointer to a feeling)
  2. Rebellious feels empowering but then also scary
  3. Exciting Feels like missing out or Like being stuck in the classroom during lunch time when everyone else is outside playing (This is another example of the metaphor)
  4. Guilty feels like a heavy weight in my chest (this is an example of a physical manifestation of a feeling)

These paths further each might open up into other feeling paths.

    • A clown that people would poke fun at
      • What does it feel like to be the clown anyway?
      • What does it feel like to be the person laughing at the clown here?
      • What does it feel like to be poked fun at?
    • Empowering
      • What does it feel like being me right now, feeling empowered?
      • What if I did the opposite?  How would that feel?
    • Scary
      • What does it feel like being scared like this right now?
    • Missing out
      • What does it feel like to miss out right now?
    • Like being stuck in the classroom during lunch time when everyone else is outside playing
      • What does it feel like to be stuck in the classroom?
    • a heavy weight in my chest
      • What does it feel like to be heavy in the chest right now?

For the purpose of example, I’ve generated multiple paths.  In practice I’d be looking to go down one path at a time. That might look like this:

  1. How am I feeling right now?
  2. I feel confused about the exercise
  3. What is it like being me right now feeling confused?
  4. Silly
  5. What is it like being me right now feeling silly?
  6. Like a clown being poked fun at
  7. What does it feel like to be the clown?
  8. Embarrasing

And onward through several feelings.  At some point, it becomes useful to not run from a feeling to the next feeling, and instead sit on it for a moment.  That might be after 10, 20 or 30+ different stops along the journey.

(in the interest of being brief I’m going to stop at 8 instead of 30) At 8, that means feeling embarrassed, but instead of asking myself for the answer of what it feels like to feel embarrassed – I stop and try to feel what it feels like to feel embarrassed.

Instead of looking for a word underneath embarrassed, I feel the feeling of embarrassed.  And wait. And it’s uncomfortable, but to get distracted by the uncomfortable feeling would be to leave embarrassed.  So I go back to embarrassed. And it gets heavy. And to get distracted onto heavy would be to not be embarrassed any more.  And it feels like something is crushing my chest, and it’s getting tighter. And it might crush me, and I might not breathe. And I wait.

And then it stops crushing.  And it softens, and it eases, and it levels out to a different feeling.  And I take a deep breath. And I feel calm. A very deep sense of calm. I feel like I’d be okay being embarrassed.  As long as I remember that there’s a sense of calm underneath.

And I feel calm.  And I feel relieved, and complete.

And that’s what it feels like to feel an uncomfortable feeling and get to the other side.  That’s what it feels like to untrain the carnival ride effect.

Next post: Feedback from emotions

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